Picking just 10 great heavyweights from 100+ years means some elite champions have to miss out. No place for Riddick Bowe, who had the tools but not the application, nor - controversially - his rival Evander Holyfield: the cruiserweight GOAT (but there are some legitimate question marks over the sculpted warrior’s rise in weight).
Any ranking also shouldn’t be about which boxer beats which in some fantasy fight. Naturally, heavyweights of the 1950s couldn’t compete in-ring with giants like the Klitschko brothers. All a fighter can do is dominate their own era and prove their greatness in their own time. Check out which of today's heavyweight fighters make our top 10.
And each of these incredible heavyweights did that: from titanic punchers to dazzling boxers.
Other content in this series:
10. Mike Tyson
W: 50 (44 KOs), L: 6, N/C: 2
Best win: KO1 Michael Spinks (1988)
His prime was a bit like ‘Iron Mike’ himself: short, sharp and explosive. Few fighters have had the menacing aura Tyson carried to the ring and while brutal punch power was his trademark, peak Tyson also boasted fast hands, a sneaky jab, head movement and a strong chin. It fell apart too soon for the youngest ever heavyweight champ, whose life and career unravelled quickly - but in the 1980s Tyson tore through the division like nobody before or since.
9. Lennox Lewis
W: 41 (32 KOs), L: 2, D: 1
Best win: W12 Evander Holyfield (1999)
Beat every fighter he ever faced, avenging his two defeats plus the (ridiculous) draw he got in the first Holyfield fight. A tall, rangy, Olympic gold medallist with a pulverising jab, high ring IQ and KO power, British-born Lewis could be even higher on this list. Except that he was a fighter who occasionally, frustratingly, came in unprepared and fought below his level. Still, the fact he beat Holyfield, Tyson, Vitali Klitschko, David Tua, Razor Ruddock and more says it all.
8. Joe Frazier
W: 32 (KOs 27), L: 4, D: 1
Best win: W15 Muhammad Ali (1971)
A thunderous left hook, relentless work ethic and an awkward pressure-fighting style: ‘Smokin Joe’ was a force of nature. The first man to defeat Muhummad Ali, Frazier only lost to two men (Ali and George Foreman) despite fighting in the most competitive ever heavyweight era. The Philadelphia icon couldn’t cope with ‘Big George’s otherworldly power - but he gave every other boxer he faced, including Ali, absolute hell.
7. Rocky Marciano
W: 49 (43 KOs), L: 0
Best win: KO1 Jersey Joe Walcott (1953)
The ‘Brockton Blockbuster’ owns the most famous heavyweight record: 49-0. Critics point out that Marciano was small, clumsy and only made six title defences, mainly against ageing opponents. But Marciano did one thing really well: win. Possessing an uncanny ability to absorb punishment and keep coming until he landed his crushing right hand, Marciano never looked like an elite boxer – but try telling that to all the men he pulverised in the ring.
6. Jack Dempsey
W: 64 (53 KOs), L: 6, D: 9
Best win: KO3 Jess Willard (1919)
Ferocious. The first boxer to set a million-dollar gate, Dempsey was the US superstar attraction of the 1920s with his savage fighting style, devastating power and rugged good looks. He was thrill-a-minute, exemplified by his fight with Luis Angel Firpo, where Dempsey knocked his opponent down seven (7) times, got blasted through out of the ring himself, then scrambled back through the ropes to eventually knock out Firpo. It lasted two rounds.
5. George Foreman
W: 76 (68 KOs), L: 5
Best win: KO2 Joe Frazier (1973)
Arguably the division’s greatest puncher. Unarguably the division’s greatest comeback. Peak ‘Big George’ demolished unbeaten Frazier inside two rounds, then did the same to tough Ken Norton. But it’s his late-career comeback that sealed Foreman’s greatness. Aged 46 and pudgy and smiling, rather than sculpted and scowling, the American KO’d heavyweight champ Michael Moorer with one punch in 1994, claiming back his crown 21 years after he first won it.
4. Larry Holmes
W: 69 (44 KOs), L: 6
Best win: W15 Ken Norton (1978)
The ‘Easton Assassin’ was, for a long stretch, the most underrated heavyweight champion. Following in Ali’s footsteps, Holmes could be as cold as Ali was charismatic – but he could fight. With a sublime jab, toughness and an elite boxing brain, Holmes was a terrific all-rounder. His numbers speak for themselves: he got to 48-0 and 20 title defences before finally tasting defeat - controversially - to Michael Spinks when Holmes was closing in on his 36th birthday.
3. Jack Johnson
W: 72 (38 KOs), L: 11, D: 11, N/C: 3
Best win: KO15 James J Jeffries (1910)
The first black heavyweight champion was a flamboyant, controversial character but in the ring he was a scientist. A master boxer, Johnson didn’t own the raw one-punch power of other heavyweight greats but he was a cunning defensive genius who knew how to land his own shots. Johnson never granted a title shot to another African-American boxer - maintaining the odious ‘colour bar’ during his six-year reign - but he was ahead of his time in the ring.
2. Joe Louis
W: 66 (52 KOs), L: 3
Best win: KO1 Max Schmeling (1938)
Stone-faced, unstoppable, with a jab that felt “like someone jammed an electric light bulb in your face” (said opponent James J Braddock). US legend Louis made a record 25 heavyweight title defences and only lost once in his prime: to Max Schmeling, who picked out a flaw in Louis’s technique. It was avenged in devastating style: two minutes and four seconds of violence that left Schmeling with broken bones in his back. When Louis first retired in 1948, he did so as champion with a 58-1 win-loss record.
1. Muhammad Ali
W: 56 (37 KOs), L: 5
Best win: KO8 George Foreman (1974)
Try to forget his social impact, good looks, quotes and even that unique fighting style that saw a 6ft 3in adonis float around the ring like a featherweight - his fists by his sides, daring you to hit him - what makes Ali the No 1 heavyweight ever is something far more concrete.
Simply, he beat more great heavyweights than any fighter before or since. Sonny Liston, Floyd Paterson (twice), Foreman, Frazier (twice), Norton (twice) and many more hall of famers around that. When Ali first retired, in 1978, he was a three-time heavyweight champ who’d avenged every defeat. Two comeback fights, when he was pushing 40, spoiled that record - but nothing can change the fact that he is indeed ‘The Greatest’.
Featured Image Credit: PA Images
Topics: Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson